Conflict has erupted on Melbourne’s waterfront after Qube Ports applied to terminate an enterprise agreement covering its Bulk & General operation. Members of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) retaliated with a snap 48-hour strike over March 17–18 and declared bans on shifts greater than seven hours and on overtime.
If Qube’s application to terminate the Melbourne agreement is successful, it would be the first time an agreement has been terminated on the nation’s wharves.
MUA assistant national secretary Warren Smith said the dispute centred on the company’s refusal to reinstate a 7:1 roster — where workers have seven weeks on and one week off — that was removed during a downturn in business conditions.
Smith said: “The company removed the roster in early 2015, saying it would revert when trading conditions improved, but three years later volumes have increased but the roster has not been reinstated.”
He said the dispute was not about wage increases but working conditions. “The company is running rampant over the workforce with the creation of work patterns that directly result in unsafe levels of fatigue.
“The company has identified fatigue as a major priority when it comes to occupational health and safety yet workers at Qube in Melbourne are working several consecutive 12-hour shifts. This is the core of the problem.”
Smith said Qube had reached agreements with workers at all its other operations but was now seeking to terminate the Melbourne agreement and return the workers to the award, which would mean a 40% pay cut.
“Why should Qube Melbourne not get the same wages as other ports when the company has inflamed the workplace with unjust sackings, excessive hours, discipline and removal of the roster,” Smith said.
“After deliberately inflaming tensions in the workplace and refusing to negotiate in good faith, management has now decided to try to cut workers’ take home pay by 40% by reverting to the award.
“This is a sneaky backdoor tactic, whereby companies apply to the Fair Work Commission to terminate an existing agreement on the grounds it has negotiated in good faith, when they had no intention of reaching agreement in the first place.
“This is then used to severely undercut decades’ worth of enterprise negotiations.”
ACTU secretary Sally McManus condemned the emerging corporate tactic of applying to terminate agreements in order to cut workers’ pay and conditions.
“Qube are abusing loopholes and breaking rules to enrich themselves at the expense of working people,’’ she said.
“We need to change the rules so that working people like the MUA members at Qube can win fair pay and good secure jobs.”
“The MUA agrees with the ACTU in saying that it’s time to change the rules,” Smith said. “Wage growth is stagnant while CEO pay packets and corporate profits are at record levels.
“All trade unionists know that the only way working people get pay rises is when they have the power to negotiate them. Right now, corporations like Qube have too much power and working people have too little.”
He said the union had not decided on further strikes but warned the dispute would escalate if the company did not shift ground. “If the company keeps refusing to bargain and goes down the path of terminating, that’s when it will blow up,” he said.